First Roll

First Roll

I’ve been mooting the idea of trying analogue photography again for awhile, inspired in part by seeing the work of the After Alice Project, a local group dedicated to documenting Calderdale and its inhabitants exclusively on film. So when my Dad offered me his old Ricoh GR1s this Christmas, I decided to buy some film and take the plunge.

I’ve shot film before of course, being in my 30s now I grew up in a world where film photography was the norm. When I was a kid back in the 1980s, I was taking snaps on holidays and school trips with a fixed lens 35mm automatic. I had a bit of a hiatus from photography in my teens, before getting back into it when I went to university. I bought a Kodak Advantix APS camera and enjoyed using it for a year or so before moving on into the then new world of digital photography.

The Ricoh GR1s

Back to the Ricoh GR1s. If that name sounds a bit familiar to you, it’s probably because of the Ricoh GR digital series which it helped inspire. As with the GR digital, it’s a compact autofocus camera built around an f2.8 prime lens. What makes this camera desirable to me is that it lets you shoot in aperture priority, offering a good degree of creative control over your photography. You get ‘modern’ niceties like light metering and autofocus so it’s still simple to pick up and use. It’s also extremely small and light, weighing in at just over 200g with film and battery loaded.

The small size of the camera does mean many of the controls and buttons are a bit fiddly to operate, and the viewfinder is positively tiny. Still it seems that with a bit of patience and luck you can still get some really nice results from it. The optics are excellent and your resolution is only really limited by the film stock you load.

One thing that tripped me up a little bit was that I picked an ISO 400 speed film. I thought that would give me more leeway in terms of poor light, but what I didn’t realise at the time, was that the GR1s has a maximum shutter speed of just 1/500th of a second! Worse yet, for anything below f11 it can only manage a meagre 1/250th. So forget using f2.8 if the sun is out – I found myself having to stop down to f16 on several occasions. Next time I’ll make sure to use a lower ISO film like a 125 or a 100, so I have a bit more flexibility.

The Film

In terms of film, as you’ll see, I’ve opted for black and white. I went with Ilford’s HP5 Plus, which as mentioned above is an ISO 400 film. I had the film processed by Ilford, but digitised the negatives myself using my X-T1* mounted on a tripod over a light box. This worked really well and yielded roughly 10 megapixel shots using the 60mm macro with its 0.5x maximum magnification. Having RAW versions of the negatives and all the control of Lightroom at your disposal is fantastic.

* I could have had a bit more resolution if I’d captured the images with my X-Pro 2 (about 15 megapixels), but since Fuji still only supports tethering with the X-T1 & 2, it was simply easier to use that, as I wanted to be able to check the images on a big screen immediately. Also with the grain size of this film, I don’t really see much of a meaningful difference between 10 and 15 megapixel digitisations.

The Images

So in no particular order here’s a selection of my favourite photos from my first roll. These have all been processed to taste in Lightroom from the captured negatives. All the shots are taken in and around Mytholmroyd in West Yorkshire.

Tangled Post
One of the few shots I managed to take at f2.8 because it was generally too bright! The image centre is decently sharp and the bokeh isn’t too bad for a wide angle.
Clog Factory
The UK’s largest clog factory (the traditional Yorkshire kind rather than those worn in the Netherlands).
I liked the light and handwritten signs here.
A little bit of surviving industry in this nice old mill building.
The Rochdale canal near Hebden Bridge on a frosty morning.
Old Victorian terrace by the River Calder, soon to be demolished as part of the Environment Agency’s attempts to improve flood resilience. Part of the building was destroyed by the river in the severe Boxing Day flood of 2015.
Mill courtyard
War memorial in Mytholmroyd
Canal reflections.
Country Lane.

Final thoughts

I’m really pleased with the overall resolution and sharpness of the images produced by the Ricoh and HP5. There’s certainly a fair bit of the grain visible in the skies, especially when you start to pull down the exposure, but overall there’s a really nice, slightly intangible quality about film photos that I rather enjoy. It’s definitely something I think I’ll explore further.

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Update: 6 Feb 2017, added a photo of the Ricoh GR1s and improved the layout of the portrait orientation photos.

Update: 26 May 2020, minor changes to accommodate new blog theme.

Fuji 60mm f2.4 R Macro Long-term Use Review

Fuji 60mm f2.4 R Macro Long-term Use Review

The very first lens I bought to go with my X-E1 kit back in 2013 was the 60mm f2.4. Back then there were precisely 4 X-mount lens to choose from; the 18mm, the 35mm, the 60mm and the 18-55mm zoom. Not much compared to today’s lineup! At the time I wanted a lens I could use for some portraits at a friend’s wedding, so I bought the 60mm as it’s a reasonable focal length for that purpose.

Unfortunately the day of the wedding was incredibly gloomy and overcast, to top it off the venue itself was very dimly lit. If you remember what it was like trying to shoot an X-E1 on 1.0 firmware with the 60mm 2.4 also on 1.0 firmware back then, you can probably guess that things did not go well! The focus was grindingly slow and frequently failed entirely, I got a few shots, but overall the experience had me wondering if I’d made a terrible mistake switching away from a DSLR.

Thankfully over time the firmware of both the X-E1 and lens were improved and the performance moved from nearly unusable in imperfect light to just about passable. In good light the lens performance was already much better and while still no speed demon, subsequent updates have helped to make it a little snappier. Where it fell down in speed, it made up for it in rendering; producing images packed with detail and with a lush creamy bokeh that blew my 18-55mm wide open at 55mm out of the water. I grew to really enjoy using it for landscape, street and the odd bit of macro photography.

After about two years of using and enjoying the lens tremendously I found myself starting to get a lot of missed shots where the camera had claimed to focus and where the image looked sharp enough in the viewfinder, but where the whole image was noticeably out-of-focus when viewed up large. I’m not sure if this was just a run of bad luck, the result of a firmware update or something else (the lens would still reliably focus enough that I was sure it wasn’t broken). Anyway I decided I’d had enough, so I put it on eBay and bought the 55-200mm f3.5.-4.8.

A few months later I found myself in possession of an X-T10 and missing the 60mm as a compact and lightweight short telephoto option. With a holiday coming up that I wanted to pack fairly lightly for, I decided I’d reacquire a copy of the 60mm and give it a second chance. After looking on eBay I found one in mint condition at a bargain price of £219 and snapped it up. I’m pleased to say the performance and focus accuracy of the lens paired with the X-T10 is hugely improved. It’s still not going to satisfy those trying to capture fast action, but for most other uses it’s now a solid performer and I’ve not had any more false focus confirmations.

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Build and Handling

As with all Fuji XF lenses, the 60mm is well made in a mixture of quality plastics and metal. As one of Fuji’s older lens designs, it’s doesn’t feature internal focusing and the front element can extend out of the lens barrel by around an inch at macro distances. At non-macro working distances it barely moves from the main lens body at all.

The lens features an awkward 39mm filter ring size, which it shares only with Fuji’s 27mm f2.8 pancake lens and precious little else from other manufacturers. This can make finding filters a challenge. To make matters worse, Fuji decided to recess the filter thread behind the outer ring of the lens barrel. This means the only way you can fit a step-up adapter is to knock out the glass from a 39mm UV filter and use that as a go between to give the necessary clearance from the filter ring to the front of the lens. It’s a messy solution, but if you need to use ND filters or a polariser it may be your only option. If Fuji ever releases a mark 2 version of this lens I hope it’s an area they address.

The 60mm has a large, smooth turning focus ring that will let you dial in precise adjustments when shooting in macro. The only downside to this is that it can make demounting the lens a little tricky, as there’s very little of it that is non-rotating. The aperture ring offers a decent level of resistance and isn’t too easy to change accidentally (unlike say the 35mm f1.4 or the 14mm f2.8).

As one of the original three lenses that launched the X series, Fuji was kind enough to bundle a high quality metal hood, complete with vents to improve its handling on X-Pro bodies. The hood is really big – it nearly doubles the overall length of the lens when attached. I find I rarely carry mine any more. The front element is deeply recessed already, so the hood doesn’t offer that much more physical protection and it’s already fairly hard to make the lens flare. The hood can be reversed for storage, but unfortunately then completely blocks the aperture ring and makes it near impossible to dismount the lens from the camera body.

Note: The three original Fuji lenses (18, 35 & 60) all share the same physical hood mount, which makes them interchangeable – albeit with caveats. On the 60mm the 18mm’s hood will block the front element at macro distances but I hear the 35mm’s hood will work quite well with it and doesn’t vignette.

Optical Performance

As I mentioned in the build up, the detail and overall rendering from this lens is very pleasing. It produces lovely creamy bokeh and thanks to its 9 blade aperture, out-of-focus highlights remain nice and round even when stopped down – a feature that curiously sets it ahead of Fuji’s fast portrait primes. You can get decent subject separation at f2.4 when shooting portraits, although obviously it’s not in the same league as the 56mm f1.2.

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The 60mm isn’t fully optically corrected and some digital distortion correction is applied both in camera and by Lightroom. The only way to avoid that correction is to use a RAW processor that lets you turn it off, such as Iridient Developer. Thankfully the corrections applied have a minimal impact on the overall image quality which remains high throughout the range, only really falling off as you start to push past f11. In my limited testing so far, the 60 seems to hold its own on the new 24 megapixel X-Trans 3 sensor.

60-corrected

Roll over this image to see the pincushion distortion that the lens has when uncorrected. The slight change in colours is down to one image being processed in Lightroom and the other in Iridient.

It’s easy to forget this is a macro lens as I find it such a versatile focal length for landscape and portraiture – but it does have the ability to focus as close as 26cm (just under 1ft) and produces a 1:2 magnification. That certainly won’t satisfy hardcore macro shooters, but as a handy addition to an already versatile lens it’s a welcome feature.

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Closing Thoughts

I think the 60mm has always been a bit of an underrated lens in the XF lineup. Being both optically very decent and a versatile focal length, but struggling to shake off its early reputation for sluggish performance. While that reputation used to be well deserved in the early days, Fuji has advanced focus speed in its recent cameras by leaps and bounds and the 60 benefits from that a lot. It will never be anyone’s first choice for fast paced sports or action photography and it will likely remain overshadowed by the 56mm f1.2 for portraiture. However for people like me, who have persevered and gradually been rewarded by Fuji’s kaizen philosophy, or those who are just now entering the Fuji system with a modern camera body, it’s a lens that has a breadth of utility that remains unmatched by any other prime on the X system. Portraiture, street, landscape, macro – no other single Fuji prime can offer that range of versatility at the present time. The 60mm will remain a very special piece of glass for the foreseeable future, despite its few quirks and shortcomings. Let me leave you with a selection of some my favourite images that I’ve taken with the 60mm over the last few years.

If you enjoy my images and reviews please consider buying a print from my store here or on Etsy.

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Whitby Colours
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Spring at Hardcastle Crags with the X100T

Spring at Hardcastle Crags with the X100T

On a warm and sunny spring day there are few nicer places to be, than wandering the trails that criss-cross Hardcastle Crags. A beauty spot just north of Hebden Bridge, that has drawn visitors from far and wide for over a century. The landscape is rugged and interesting, having been carved over eons by the fast flowing Hebden Water. A good mix of deciduous and evergreen trees provide shelter from the scorching sun and shade a carpet of bluebells and other wild flowers. The estate is managed by the National Trust so the paths are kept in good order and there’s no litter or other blight to spoil the views. It’s a great place to put a camera through its paces and have a thoroughly enjoyable day out. As it happens I have a new camera that I’ve been eager to acquaint, or perhaps I should say “reacquaint”, myself with. So I thought this would be a great opportunity to do a quasi-review and share some images of this beautiful place.

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My first Fuji X camera was a 1st generation X100. It was a camera I really adored and got great use from, but which fell out of favour after I got my first interchangeable lens Fuji, an X-E1. While I loved the versatility and 35mm equivalent lens, the old 12 megapixel sensor and clunky, slow performance (even compared to the X-E1) eventually led me to sell it. Since then I’ve often lusted after its replacements, first the X100S and then the X100T – but I’ve always had other things to worry about spending money on, so it had remained a pipe dream. That is until a few days ago, when I came across a bargain priced X100T with barely 100 shots on the clock on eBay. I’m now the proud owner of that camera!

Since it’s now been around a year and half since the X100T was introduced, it’s at what I’d consider a good price range on the secondhand market. The S can be had for a bit less, but not at enough of a discount to make up for its shortcomings in my opinion. There’s also still a sliver of hope the T might get a firmware update with some new features or performance improvements whereas that’s generally considered to be completely off the table for the S model. Either way, at least the T is sufficiently close in terms of performance and features to cameras like the X-T1 and X-T10 to feel very familiar.

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As with every generation of X100, the handling out of the box isn’t great, especially for one handed shooting. To make this camera really shine, it benefits massively from a hotshoe mounted thumb grip and a half case makes it more comfortable to hold while providing some protection against knocks and scrapes. A lens hood and filter adapter are also must haves. Thankfully cheap 3rd party alternatives are now readily available as Fuji charges an insane premium, especially for the filter adapter and lens hood. Unfortunately good quality thumb grips are still quite expensive, and getting one designed specifically for the X100T is important due to the placement of the drive button and command dial. It’s also best to avoid ones that offer no bracing against the camera body as they put a lot of strain on the hotshoe. I’d recommend either the Lensmate or Match Technical models.

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The X100T performs very nicely in use – I wish I had a 1st generation X100 on hand to compare it to, as I’m sure the difference would be night and day. In terms of general operation I’d say it’s more or less equivalent to my X-T10, which makes sense as they share the same basic hardware and the firmware versions aren’t too far removed, with the exception of the major autofocus changes Fuji made last year. Speaking of autofocus, in general it’s very good, although it won’t be setting any speed records. Things do slow down a bit in lower light and outside of the phase detect area in the centre of the frame, but I think it’s nothing a competent photographer can’t work around.

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After going for three years sans-X100, I perhaps looked back on some aspects of it with rose tinted glasses. I’d forgotten for example, how much of a challenge it was to achieve decent subject separation with its 23mm f2 lens. You might think that’s obvious from the focal length, but given Fuji’s 18mm f2 is quite capable in this department and is even wider, it’s a shame the X100 lens falls down here.

The biggest limitation of the lens is the hazing it produces at very close subject distances when shot at f2. This necessitates stopping down to at least f4, and that really mitigates the shallow depth of field advantage you get from being close to your subject in the first place. Bokeh at mid distances is also a mixed bag. It can be quite harsh with the wrong background, to the point where in many cases it’s safer to just stop down and get everything crisp and use some other technique to draw the eye.

The lens also seems to exhibit more field curvature than I’m used to seeing with Fuji glass, where focusing at some distances can leave the edges of the frame softer than they should be – even when stopped down to moderate apertures. I think this is probably slightly more pronounced on a 16 megapixel sensor than it was on 12, so stopping down a little more than strictly necessary can be a good plan. You’ll notice I shot most images here at f8 to mitigate this issue.

Field curvature concerns aside, the overall sharpness of the lens is excellent, especially in the centre of the frame where it’s outstanding.

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All lens complaints aside though, I’ve completely fallen in love with the 23mm (35mm equivalent) focal length again. I really like Fuji’s 35mm lenses (50mm eqiv.), particularly the 35mm f2. They are great for many things which the X100’s 23mm lens is bad at (see above), but I often can’t shake the feeling that they feel too tight for a lot of general shooting. The 23mm lens just offers that bit of extra flexibility in composition, without throwing up all the challenges that 18mm and wider focal lengths do with controlling the scene or dealing with converging verticals. It’s a shame that the only current 23mm lens for the interchangeable lens Fujis is a bit of a behemoth. Hopefully rumours that a 23mm f2 akin to the new 35mm f2 prove correct.

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I’m making a concerted effort to make more use of the optical viewfinder in the X100T, and after shooting with purely electronic viewfinder based cameras for quite sometime now, it’s a refreshing change. Whether I end up mostly using the EVF again, like I did with my 1st generation X100 or not remains to be seen of course. But there’s something really nice about being able to see beyond the frame you’re capturing and it’s interesting to contrast what your eye sees unaided with what the camera captures when the preview pops up.

The big new feature in the hybrid viewfinder of the X100T, over the previous models, is the little tab you can activate that gives you a live preview of what the camera is seeing at the selected AF point. If you’e a manual focus fan wanting to use the optical viewfinder, this will be a major boon and lets you get closer to a true rangefinder experience. Personally I’m not entirely sold on its utility for focus confirmation in conjunction with autofocus, but perhaps it will grow on me.

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Overall I’m delighted with the X100T. It’s a much better camera than the old X100 that made me first fall in love with the Fuji system. It still shares some of the quirks and oddities from that first generation model as it’s built around the same lens, but overall it’s a very refined and polished camera. To get the most from it you will need to get some of the essential accessories I mentioned above, but the payoff is worth it. You get a very small and light camera that can tackle a huge range of subjects with aplomb.

Most of the X100T reviews I’ve seen have been heavily focused on street photography, obviously an area where this camera excels. But it’s also great for landscape work and hopefully the images here demonstrate that and provide a different perspective to your usual gritty street scenes.

As usual, if you like my writing and would like to help support me and the site, please consider buying a print on my on-line store or through Etsy.

 

Queen Street Mill

Queen Street Mill

Since moving to the former heart of the Industrial Revolution, up in the North of England, I’ve become fascinated by our industrial heritage. Where I live in the Calder Valley, the hollow remnants of old mills still dot the landscape, but there’s little sense of what these places were once like in their heyday. Worse still, this important link with history is fast vanishing; forgotten ruins crumble away out of sight in wooded valleys. Industrial buildings left standing in cities are turned into empty apartment complexes by developers seeking to capitalise on ever spiralling house prices, or are simply flattened to make way for bland modernity.

So when I learned there was a steam powered, working textile mill in the form of a museum just across the border in Lancashire, I jumped at the opportunity to go photograph it while I still could. Inevitably I suppose, George Osborne’s axe looms large over the place – it’s destined to close in April 2016, as local government funding is diverted to try and keep essential public services operating. I’ll avoid delving too deeply into politics here, but this kind of shortsighted cultural vandalism, forced by the Tory obsession with gutting the state, makes my blood boil frankly.

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If you’ve seen historical pictures of old mills you’ll have no doubt come across scenes like the one above. Rows of ungainly looking contraptions with masses of drive belts criss-crossing above them. It’s an impressive sight – even more so when the line shafts above your head start to spin and the room full of century old machinery springs to life in a deafening din.

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The museum employs a number of skilled crafts people, who demonstrate the weaving looms and various pieces of supporting equipment. They even still make a few items which they sell in the museum shop. You can see some part woven “terry towels” below along with a loaded shuttle, the thing that noisily gets whipped back and forth to supply the horizontal threads.

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Beyond the grandiose machinery, the mill is packed with fascinating, authentic details. An utter delight for a photographer – or indeed anyone wanting to get a flavour of the past, not sanitised by our modern health and safety obsessed culture. No glass display cases or signs warning of trivial and obvious dangers to obstruct your view. Most of the equipment on display is still working and in situ, just waiting for the appropriate switches and leavers to be pulled to bring it back to life.

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Being a true old textile mill, rather than a purpose built museum with a few immaculate specimens preserved in some metropolitan centre, the grime and cobwebs are real rather than stage dressing.

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The stationary steam engine that powers the mill is an incredible thing to behold, especially when it’s running. All that separates you from it is a friendly warning sign and a strip of black and yellow tape on the floor.

I was surprised at quite how musical it sounded, producing various beats and thumping rhythms as it came up to speed. The vibration of the massive piston shaking the floor beneath my feet as it flew back and forth with a curious mix of engineered grace and violent force.

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Beyond the engine itself, the engine room yielded some lovely details – like the tool shelf and plaque pictured below.

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Of course to work that engine needs steam – a lot of steam. That is produced in the boiler room downstairs, in the last working Lancashire boilers in the world.

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The fireman feeding the boilers with coal needs to keep a constant eye on the water level and pressure. Both being critical to the safe operation and longevity of the equipment. The boilers themselves were state of the art in their day, employing many tricks so as to be as economical and efficient as possible.

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The shot below shows the view from above the two massive boilers and the snaking pipework that feeds the steam out and fresh water in.

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I had high hopes for the Queen Street Mill and I have to say I wasn’t disappointed. That it’s closing so soon is a real tragedy. I really hope somewhere down the line it gets reopened to the public and isn’t simply left mothballed until it falls too far into disrepair.

If this kind of thing interests you at all, I strongly recommend taking this last chance to go see it in person. You can find the opening times and directions here.

All images were shot on my new X-T10 with mainly the 35mm f2 and 14mm f2.8. As usual, if you like my writing and would like to help support me and the site please consider buying a print on my on-line store or through Etsy.

Fuji XF 55-200 F3.5-4.8 R Review

Fuji XF 55-200 F3.5-4.8 R Review

When I was a Nikon shooter I was always quite fond of the 70-300 VR zoom lens. It wasn’t technically super sharp at the long end, but it had good range and nice bokeh. After moving over to the Fuji system, for some time the longest AF lens I had was the 60mm f2.4. While it’s actually quite a versatile focal length for the kind of shooting I do, I did find myself wishing for something with more reach on many occasions. Last year I picked up the XC 50-230mm f4.5-6.7 at a heavily discounted price. I shot with it for a bit and it’s actually a pretty good piece of kit for the money, but I found the slow maximum aperture limiting. I also found the overall rendering often not to my liking and given how finicky processing X-trans RAWs can be, you really need good glass to get the best from it. So earlier this year I sold it and bought the XF 55-200mm f3.5-4.8. After using it for much of the year, this is my review.

Ergonomics & Build Quality

The 55-200 is a hefty, heavy lens at nearly 600g. Owners of similar focal lengths on DSLRs or even Fuji’s 55-140mm f2.8, will scoff at the idea of 600g being heavy – but paired with featherweight bodies like my X-E1, its weight and bulk are very noticeable. I suspect the balance is better on an X-T1 or X-T10, but it’s a combination I’ve yet to be able to try.

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As we’ve come to expect from XF lenses, the 55-200 is solidly built with a mix of metal and quality plastics. The focus ring is firm but moves smoothly, the cool feel of the metal exudes quality. The zoom ring with its rubberised grip looks smart, but is a bit too stiff for my liking. At least it means you don’t need to worry about zoom creep when you tilt the lens up or down, as it will most definitely stay where you’ve left it between shots. The aperture ring is reasonably stiff and will resist accidental changes fairly well. I wish Fuji would put marked aperture rings on all its zooms, the free spinning ones offer scant advantages over a thumb dial on the body, except familiarity of placement. It also has a couple of switches, one for toggling auto-aperture and one for enabling or disabling the image stabiliser.

At 200mm the lens nearly doubles in length, add the hood and it’s pretty serious looking at any focal length. It’s certainly hard to feel inconspicuous using this lens, which may limit its usefulness for some applications such as street photography. The front element is non-rotating as you’d expect on a modern lens and it takes 62mm filters. A filter size it shares with the 23mm f1.4, 56mm f1.2 and 90mm f2, which is unusually practical for Fuji who have a habit of picking a different filter size for each new lens.

Sharpness, Distortion & Focusing

The sharpness out of this lens is very impressive. It definitely gets a little weaker as you approach 200mm, but for most of the range the performance is strong, especially at typical working apertures of f5.6 to f8. Wide open there’s enough central sharpness to make it decent for portraiture at any focal length. As is common with Fuji XF lenses, the maximum aperture (at least at the long end) is a little brighter than usual at f4.8, rather than the more typical f5.6. You can use the lens at f4 through to 90mm.

The lens does exhibit some optical distortion which gets slightly more pronounced as you zoom in, but it’s not too extreme. Distortion is automatically corrected in software, so you don’t really need to worry about it. Here’s an example of an image with and without the correction applied (mouse over). The difference in colour rendering is down to one being processed in Lightroom and the other in Iridient Developer. Lightroom won’t let you disable the software distortion correction.

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Fine detail rendering is generally very good, which is particularly important with the X-Trans sensor as it helps avoid the ‘watercolour’ look with foliage. That said you need to be aware of the limitations of the optical image stabiliser, if your shutter speed is high it’s worth switching it off as it can introduce enough motion blur to take the edge off the lens’s sharpness. I’ve found using the OIS in mode 2 produces the most consistent results, although this does mean you don’t get a stabilised view when composing your shot. Ideally Fuji would give us the option to set a shutter speed over which the OIS would just disable, so you didn’t need to worry about doing it manually. I’ve not done any formal testing on the effectiveness of the OIS, but I find I can happily shoot 200mm at 1/125 without fear of camera shake. (I usually use auto-ISO with a minimum shutter speed of 1/125)

Focus speed is very good, and bearing in mind this is based on my experience of using it with a slow old X-E1, performance on newer bodies should be excellent. The dual linear motors are quiet and you’re unlikely to hear them working outdoors. I’ve found the lens rarely misses focus and any blurriness usually tends to be my fault rather than the lens’s.

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Bokeh

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The 55-200’s bokeh won’t win any awards, but it manages to be fairly smooth and pleasing in most situations. There’s an outlining effect visible in highlights and it becomes increasingly cat’s eye like towards the edges of the frame, as shown above. You can get very smooth results with the right background and distance to your subject however, as below with the Bentley hood ornament.

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Samples

Here are some more shots taken with the 55-200 for your viewing pleasure. It’s a versatile lens and I use it for a mix of detail, wildlife and landscape work. It should also work pretty well for portraiture, although some may find the limited subject separation achievable compared to its faster siblings less desirable, at least with full body portraits.

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While 200mm is usually too short for wildlife photography, sometimes you get lucky as with the blackbird shot above. For ‘casual’ wildlife photography it can work though, just choose larger or tamer subjects! But don’t expect to be able to get shots of birds from any kind of distance.

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Summary

While the 55-200 isn’t my favourite Fuji lens, it’s a solid and versatile performer. If you need a focal length beyond 90mm it’s certainly the best option currently available. Its size and weight do feel somewhat at odds with the ethos of the mirrorless world however, which is supposed to be about leaving the heavy, cumbersome kit behind. The XC 50-230 demonstrates you can have good reach in a lightweight package, but it comes with sacrifices in image quality, maximum aperture, build and handling which make it hard to recommend unless price is your primary concern.

Whether Fuji could have made size or weight savings with the 55-200 without resorting to the same compromises as present in the XC lens is uncertain. But to me it feels like many of the XC’s shortcomings are driven by cost saving measures rather than fundamental limitations of lens design.

Fuji has two other zoom lenses whose focal ranges also intersect with the 55-200’s (aside from the 50-230) but which are far more niche products. The 18-135mm f3.5-5.6 “super zoom” will no doubt have its fans, especially due to its weather sealing and pairing with the X-T1 as a kit. But optically it’s more compromised owing to its nearly 8x zoom range. On the other hand, the 55-140mm f2.8 is clearly aimed at the professional market with its fast maximum aperture and top quality optics. However its cost, size and weight will make it impractical for many.

Between those two choices, the 55-200 looks like the most sensible general purpose offering for those looking for quality, but wanting to strike a balance between size and cost. It’s for this reason that this lens is in my kit bag and will remain there for the foreseeable future.

As always if you find my reviews helpful and you like my images, please consider purchasing a print either from the store here or on Etsy. I’m not famous enough to get freebies from Fuji so I need your support to keep both this site running and to keep my camera gear up-to-date. 

Liverpool

Liverpool

Since moving up north three years ago, I’ve been meaning to visit Liverpool. Finally the opportunity arose last month, so I jumped on the train with fellow photographer and Fuji enthusiast Richard Gascoigne, for the one and a half hour journey to Merseyside.

I think it’s not a stretch to say modern Liverpool is most famous for The Beatles and its premier league football club, rather than its mercantile history. Like its northern siblings, it suffered a long painful period of stagnation and decline as traditional industries collapsed or were made obsolete. It’s only comparatively recently (the last 20 or so years), that serious efforts have been made to revitalise and regenerate the city. Its skyline now has its fair share of gleaming glass and steel office blocks, standing incongruously with elegant Victorian structures thankfully protected for future generations. Unlike in Leeds and Manchester, the process of regeneration feels less complete, and in many places appears stalled entirely. No where is this more evident than the sprawling northern docks. Listed buildings and world heritage sites lie surrounded by temporary barriers, or locked behind tall metal gates with vast swaths of empty land that no one seems to have much use for.

Luckily for me as a photographer at least, the pause in activity buys a little more time to document what’s been left behind. Indeed if you want to go and see what’s left before it’s all turned into impossibly expensive flats and great vacant office towers, your time is certainly running out.

When I was researching where to explore in the city I came across endless shots of the Liver Building and the prettier bits of the waterfront. As a result I’ve made a conscious decision to avoid including images of them here. The parts of the city that interest me most are those that are living on borrowed time. The only glimpse you’ll get of the Liver Building here is in the background of a few shots. Given the limited colour palette and gritty feel in a lot of the images, I’ve decided to publish these all in black and white. This allows a bit more freedom in pushing the tones to bring out the texture and detail. For those interested, I’ve processed all the shots in Silver Efex Pro 2.

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As you can see above, much the dockland has been scrubbed clear. What little that is in use is home to light commercial and industrial buildings, huddled like imposters behind the grand old dock wall.

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Amid the network of empty docks stands the impressive Victoria Clock Tower. It looks rather worse for ware, but as a Grade II listed building has been spared demolition. It was announced in 2010 that it was going to be repaired, but it doesn’t look like anything has been done in the five years since.

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Another impressive and largely un-redeveloped area is Stanley Dock. Home to an old tobacco warehouse that is one of the largest brick buildings in the world. It boasts 14 stories and covers an area of 36 acres according to Wikipedia. It’s certainly vast and impressive even in its current state.

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I presume this little booth, clinging to the side of the southern warehouse, was for the operator of the hoist that’s directly above it. It appears that you had to climb in through a window after scaling the ladder, not how I’d want to get to work every day! This is the sort of little detail that probably won’t survive redevelopment so it’s nice to have a chance to capture it.

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The northern side of the dock has been developed into a vast (empty looking) luxury hotel from where this and the following two images were shot. Surrounded by derelict industrial sites it feels rather out of place and a bit ahead of its time given the general state of redevelopment in the area. At the back of the dock is an old grain silo that’s in really poor shape. I’d be surprised if this isn’t torn down soon – either that or gravity will do the job itself.

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A straight side on shot of the Tobacco Warehouse gives you an idea of it’s huge scale. If you worked on the top floor I bet you wouldn’t have relished the prospect of using that fire escape! The steps are made from bars so you’d have been able to see straight down to the ground.

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Here’s a closer shot showing the rows of metal columns holding up the vast weight of all those millions of bricks. I hear a ‘heritage market’ used to be held in the space beneath the warehouse until 2011, I wish I’d had the chance to visit.

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Detail of the crane and slowly collapsing gantry on the side of the grain silo.

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I was pleasantly surprised to see some interesting old buildings and features left around the Canning Dock area that look fairly untouched. The temporary fencing is out in force around here though, which makes photographing various parts more challenging. The Great Western Railway warehouse by the dry docks looks really nice and is in surprisingly good condition, leading me to wonder if its already been restored to some degree. Notice the great glass brutalist monster blocking the skyline behind it though.

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Both the dry docks were in use when I visited, but it was tough to get a good angle without prying apart the bars on the damnable temporary fencing to poke the camera lens through!

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Preserving historic buildings in this country usually means one of two things – turning them into trendy bars or expensive apartments. There are plenty of examples of both in Liverpool.

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Unfortunately even in the city centre some buildings are still struggling for survival, like this wonderful old cinema. Developers want to knock this lot down and replace it with something bland and ‘modern’. Sadly the Futurist is not listed or in a conservation area so its future looks pretty bleak. Another one to photograph and appreciate while it’s still there.

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I thought I’d end with this shot of the eclectic Liverpool skyline, as I think it sums up the battle being fought between those seeking to modernise the city and those trying to protect its heritage. It’s a delicate balance to achieve and at the moment it feels like the heritage side is losing out to commercial interests keen on filling now vacant land with generic apartment blocks and commercial buildings. So much so that UNESCO has Liverpool on its list of world heritage sites in danger. Let’s hope sense prevails and that the important, and in many cases beautiful, old industrial buildings can be brought back in to use as part of a modern Liverpool.

If you enjoy my images and writing please help support me and the site by purchasing a print from my web store here or on Etsy.

Handmade Parade 2015

Handmade Parade 2015

Every year the small market town of Hebden Bridge, nestled in the Pennines, bursts to life with the vibrant and magical Handmade Parade. The various floats, puppets and multitude of costumes are created by local residents around a theme that’s picked by the public. This year’s theme was “Come fly with us” and featured everything from birds to giant insects and aliens to crazy flying machines.

This year I shot the parade with the following gear; my trusty (but increasingly long-in-the-tooth) X-E1, XF 14mm f2.8, XF 27mm f2.8 and XF 55-200mm. This the first year I’ve shot the parade without a fast prime and there were some occasions where I missed having one. The 55-200 can produce good subject separation, but the bokeh can be quite busy in some circumstances.

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The parade was led by a jovial pair of air traffic controllers.

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When you’re close to the action the 14mm lens is great to fill the frame with multiple subjects.

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I’m not sure how the raggedy lion fit with the theme but it was cool all the same.

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There are always some impressive stilt walkers in the parade. These two in butterfly costumes were particularly impressive and given the reasonably strong gusts of wind still blowing through the valley, did a good job in staying upright! Choosing a low angle is great of accentuating the height of tall subjects.

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As I mentioned above you can get some nice subject isolation with the 55-200 and at closer distances the bokeh is smooth and creamy. Framing can be more of a challenge during a fast moving parade though. In previous years I’ve used the 60mm f2.4 for this kind of shot and while it was easier to handle, the slow focusing could ruin shots. I’d love to try a 56mm f1.2 for this, but that will take quite a few print sales to make a reality!

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If you enjoy my images and writing please help support me and the site by purchasing a print from my web store here or on Etsy. If you would like to see my images from the 2014 Handmade Parade click here.

Project: Leaving a Mark

Project: Leaving a Mark

I’ve been photographing street art and graffiti for several years now, where ever I come across it. From hasty scrawls to detailed artworks, abstract patterns to political messages. Graffiti can be a controversial subject; some people think it’s urban blight, has no value or is simply vandalism. It certainly can be all of those things, but that doesn’t change that it’s still fundamentally art – a form of human expression, and one that has a history as old as civilisation itself.

What interests me about it, and why I like to photograph it, is both its ephemeral nature and how it forms part of the texture of the world around us. Traditional two dimensional artwork is generally discrete, it has defined borders after which the world it conveys abruptly ends. Grafitti on the other hand does not, its world is our world. This makes it interesting photographically because you can both photograph the artwork itself, or the environment its in, or some combination of the two without the feeling that you’re simply creating a facsimile of someone else’s work.

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Stencilled pieces, like Silvia and her bike above, are very popular – just look at anything by street artist Banksy. Personally though I prefer the painted on the spot type, as they are more spontaneous and have a uniqueness that stencilled works can’t match.

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I love the dual textures in this detail shot, the fine paint flecks that make up the eye against the rough and ready chipboard it’s painted onto. Below is a detail of another, more abstract piece. Spray painted works that are done well usually have a fantastic feeling of energy about them.

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Typically when you think of what’s used for graffiti, spray cans are the first thing that comes to mind. But most of us will have encountered many other forms – names and doodles scratched into tables, initials carved into tree trunks, expletives in marker pen on the back of toilet doors and so on. I’ve noticed that hand drawn stickers seem quite popular locally. These micro artworks add little splashes of colour to places that would be difficult to turn into canvasses with other mediums.

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One of the perks of living in a fairly bohemian area, is that you’re probably more likely to run into something a little more thought provoking than your usual initials, tags and doodles. Whether poetic or political in nature as these pieces above and below.

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Even fairly ugly pieces can make for interesting photographs. There are some great colours and textures in this decaying old garage door. The silver spray painted face (or whatever it is) shines brilliantly when ever the sun hits it, in sharp contrast with the dreary old green paint and rust stains.

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In a world where every building in a city can have a CocaCola or a Visa logo present, I guess it’s only natural that people want to reclaim some of that space to express their own identity. Tagging is probably the most controversial form of graffiti, usually due to its repetition, frequent lack of obvious artistic merit and the way in which it appears to try to wrest a territory for its creator. It’s an aggressive form of the art. Like planting a flag on foreign soil, tagging is staking a claim on someone else’s property in a way that I feel more artistic pieces are not. Photographically I usually find tags on their own fairly uninteresting, instead it becomes about context. In the shot above the “Lovecats” mark is atop another, painted over tag, beneath a plethora of threatening signs. The tag on its own is meaningless, but in this context you get the sense of fighting against the rules, defying the wall’s owner’s attempts at silencing past expression. It’s hardly profound, but it’s a story nonetheless and makes the image more interesting.

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A lot of effort clearly went into this piece, but it was very short lived, which I think highlights why it’s important to photograph these things and create a lasting record. Unusually it was made of painted paper, and as a result it began to deteriorate within a few days. I assume this method was used to avoid making any lasting damage to the old stone wall, which was considerate of the artist.

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This detail of the artwork shown above was taken just a few days later and shows the paper starting to crack and peel. The artwork was removed entirely not long after.

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Big commissioned murals like the one above can actually help rejuvenate an area, which nicely counters the idea that graffiti is only a sign of urban decay. The old brick railway arch makes a lovely frame for this piece.

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Brickwork can add great texture and becomes as much a part of the artwork as the paint itself.

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Some colourful graffiti can really improve otherwise bland, utilitarian buildings like the enclosed electric substation above.

With exception of the feature image at the top of this article, which was taken in Copenhagen, all the other images have been taken around Hebden Bridge, Leeds and Manchester in Northern England.

Unlike past project pieces I’ve written up here, I consider this one on-going and I’ll continue to document interesting street art and graffiti as I come across it. I hope you’ve enjoyed looking at these images. As ever if you’d like to help support the site and my work please consider buying a print from my web store or on Etsy.

Winter becomes Spring

Winter becomes Spring

I was surprised to see it’s been quite awhile since I last wrote anything on here, tempus fugit! Winter has slipped by and we’re well into spring now, with the tree’s starting to green up and all the usual spring flowers in abundance in this verdant valley I call home. We had quite a decent winter in Yorkshire, with some good snow falls. A marked improvement on last year’s mild, but damp and grey affair – at least as far as photography is concerned!

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The heaviest snowfall deposited around a foot of the white stuff on the hillsides around Calderdale. Probably a little more up on the tops. Pictured above is the hamlet of Old Chamber, a stones throw east of market town Hebden Bridge. It was a hell of a slog up the steep cobbled road to reach it, with on and off snow showers to contend with. Still it was great to finally reach the top and meander along the high road, before descending down through Crow Nest Wood into town for a much needed hot drink!

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I’ve visited this old ruined cottage above Mytholmroyd on several occasions since 2012. Not much has changed in the last three years, save one or two more bricks going missing above the doorway. It looked lovely nestled in the undulating snow drifts with the valley behind largely obscured by fog. Such a shame it’s been left to fall down.

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In February I made the decision to part ways with my Fuji 60mm prime. Like many owners of this lens, I’ve had something of a love hate relationship with it. It’s a focal length I grew to really enjoy, and optically the lens was stellar with lovely bokeh, great sharpness and a good size to weight ratio. Of course the major downside was, that despite several firmware updates, it was a slow lens to focus. Coupled with my ageing X-E1, and I was starting to find I was missing too many shots to AF errors and decided it was finally time to part ways. What could replace it – the 56mm f1.2? Well maybe one day, but for now I’ve decided to rearm myself with a long telephoto zoom.

Last year I briefly owned the cheap and cheerful XC 50-230mm zoom, after getting a good deal on one at the Photography Show in Birmingham. However I found after awhile that the slow maximum aperture, and to an extent the image rendering, weren’t really what I was looking for. So this time I’ve gone a step further and have opted for the Fuji XF 55-200mm. It’s bigger, heavier and has a slightly more limited zoom range. However it’s significantly faster at the long end (f4.8 vs f6.7), has more pleasing micro-contrast and colour rendering to my eye. Overall I’m pleased with the results it produces, it’s easily as sharp at 55mm as the 60mm prime and is very good through the range, only really getting a little weak at the far end (as is often the case with zooms). How much of that is actually the optic’s fault and how much my X-E1’s weak AF system, I’m not entirely sure yet as it seems a little variable.

Admittedly the 55-200mm is not really that well matched to an X-E body – I really notice the extra weight when it’s hanging from the camera around my neck. I’m hoping I’ll be able to upgrade to an X-T1 (or whatever replaces that), within the next year though. So it’s a forward looking purchase in that regard. I’ll post a full review when I’ve had some more time to put it through its paces.

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February also saw a trip to iconic local landmark Stoodley Pike, with my good friend Penny. We approached from the Mankinhole’s side, which I’d not tried previously. This afforded me some new views, including this boulder strewn one which I rather like.

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Onward’s to March now and a visit to Salt’s Mill in Saltaire, near Bradford. Salt’s Mill is an incredible sprawling Victorian textile mill, surrounded by a village of terraced houses that once provided homes for the mill’s many workers. It’s a lovely place and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. The mill itself is no longer working, but remains in use as a gallery and shopping space. It has a strong connection with Bradford-born David Hockney, whose work can be found brightening the galleries.

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Finally here’s one more shot from Mytholmroyd, this time of an old Victorian terrace that runs between the Rochdale Canal down towards the River Calder. I like the compressed perspective here and the neat angles. The gentle hump of the bridge hides the busy main road at the end of the terrace.

Until next time, if you enjoy my writing and images please consider supporting me and the site by purchasing a print from my store here or on Etsy.

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Fuji XF 14mm f2.8 R review

Fuji XF 14mm f2.8 R review

Let’s just start by saying I’m really excited by this lens. I used to own the really nice Samyang 14mm f2.8 when I shot Nikon and it’s a focal length I’ve missed since switching to Fuji. For the last couple of years a Samyang 8mm fisheye was my fallback ultra-wide option, but fisheyes have limitations and I found I was using mine less and less. As a result I decided to sell it a few months ago. That left me with the 18mm f2 as my widest lens. The 18mm is a good lens, but it does have its shortcomings optically and I found myself yearning for something that could produce more dramatic results for landscape and street work. I did seriously consider Samyang’s new 12mm f2 ultra-wide angle, but I’ve read so many good things about the Fuji 14mm I decided to play it safe. I’m glad I did – this lens is clearly a winner.

Pros and cons of going wider

While 14mm (21mm equivalent) is not at the extreme end of the wide angle spectrum on APS-C, it’s enough to make photos look more dramatic and out of the ordinary. With the sheer ubiquity of 18-55mm (~28-85mm) lenses, people are used to seeing images at those focal lengths. That means lenses that break out of that range immediately have the potential to create more interesting pictures. The downside for the photographer is that it can make composition and getting the right exposure more complicated. You’ve potentially got to get a lot closer to subjects to make them fill your frame, then you have distortion to worry about, especially when shooting people. It’s often hard to keep bright light sources in the periphery out of your shot, which can throw off the camera’s metering causing under exposure or blown highlights. None of these things are insurmountable challenges, but they all take getting used to and are worth bearing in mind as they generally get more pronounced the wider the lens is.

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18mm vs 14mm

Compared to the Fuji 18mm lens (left), the 14mm is a fair bit bigger. It’s roughly the same size as the 60mm f2.4 or the 18-55mm f2.8-4 zoom. In fact it shares the same petal shaped, plastic (boo) lens hood with the latter. It has a 58mm filter thread which it shares with the 18-55mm, 16-50mm and 50-230mm zooms, but notably none of the other Fuji primes.

The 18mm is optically decent, (especially if you’re willing to work around its limitations in post*), but the 14mm is truly stellar. It shoots beautiful, sharp, undistorted images effortlessly. It’s already very sharp wide open at 2.8 and it really only gets better from there before diffraction starts to shave away at the sharpness past f8. But really most of the time you’re going to be using this lens from f2.8 to f5.6 where it really shines.

* The 18mm is hampered by chromatic aberration and the forced distortion correction both in-camera and in Lightroom loses you a lot of resolution at the image edges. For shots where resolution really matters it’s worth using a RAW processor that will let you disable this as it brings up the edge quality considerably (at the cost of some distortion natch).

Something presently only available on the 14mm and the 23mm f1.4, is the distance scale painted on the lens barrel and push-pull manual focus mechanism. When in autofocus mode, the focus ring is locked and won’t rotate. Pulling it back towards the camera body reveals distance markings and unlocks it with a satisfying click. The focus ring is range limited, with a 1/3rd turn moving it between infinity and near focus. The issue with this design is that there’s no way to autofocus and then tweak your focus manually. People who like to use manual mode and focus with the AE-L/AF-L button may be unhappy as a result. Personally I rarely use manual focus on AF lenses, but the distance scale and hard stopped focus ring will no doubt appeal to zone focus aficionados.

In use

Now if you’re after MTF charts or shots of brick walls, we’ll have to part ways here, but if you’d like to see some real life images shot with this lens then let’s plough on!

I’m lucky enough to live within easy travelling distance of the wonderful old English city of York, and where better to play with a wide angle lens than the cavernous, intricately detailed interior of York Minster Cathedral?

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You’ll notice I’ve shot this at f10. That wasn’t intentional and it brings me to really the only negative point with this lens – the aperture ring is too loose and is very easily changed unintentionally. I find the 18mm and 60mm have about equal stiffness and aren’t too easy to jog once mounted, but the 14mm is definitely one to keep an eye on.

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The lack of distortion (even with corrections disabled in RAW) is a major boon for anyone looking to shoot architecture. The focal length also makes getting sharp images handheld at low shutter speeds fairly easy. It was quite dim inside the cathedral so I found myself shooting 1/30 and even 1/15 sec on several occasions, despite this the majority of the shots I took were sharp and free from motion blur.

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You definitely have to pay more attention to your composition with wider angle lenses, as I mentioned earlier. It’s not as extreme as shooting with a fisheye, where a few degrees up or down could ruin your image if you wanted a flat horizon, but it can still strongly impact the look of a shot. Attempting to keep verticals dead straight inclines you towards creating ’50/50′ images with the horizon bang in the centre. This can leave you with unwanted masses of sky or foreground when shooting landscape or architecture. A solution can be to tilt upwards a little then correct in post (Lightroom has fantastic tools for this and can even automate much of the process). Or of course you can try and find a higher vantage point! In this case I’ve left the shot as is, but you can see if I’d gone for straight verticals I’d have had a lot more chairs and tiled floor in the shot and lost much the fantastic vaulted ceiling.

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This is my favourite shot of the day. Looking straight up at the ceiling of the main tower. It’s almost dizzyingly high. I’ve cropped this down a little bit to help with the symmetry, but you still feel the benefit of the 14mm, as gives you the leeway to do this that the 18mm wouldn’t. Even at f4 it’s fantastically sharp into the extreme corners. This is certainly a lens that will stand the test of time if Fuji moves to higher megapixel sensors in the future.

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Of course the 14mm excels at grand landscapes too once you get outside. In this case after climbing 275 steps in claustrophobically narrow spiral staircases! Outdoors the challenge becomes balancing the exposure. It’s easy to throw off the metering by having so much bright sky in the shot. The advantage of shooting RAW is the huge dynamic range the X-trans sensor can capture. You can pull so much out of the shadows without things getting noisy, it can really save images where it appears you’ve completely lost areas to darkness. Hover over the image above to see the same shot with no adjustments applied. I’m happy to report I didn’t notice any problems with flare even when shooting with the sun just out of the corner of the shot. I imagine the smallish front element helps here.

Moving on to the National Railway Museum now, also in York, you can see another of the 14mm’s traits – incredibly close focus. In fact you can get to within 10cm of your subject and still be able to lock focus (you don’t even need to enable macro mode, which seems to have no practical effect with this lens). Bokeh is decent as wide angles go, although naturally it’s not quite as smooth and creamy as the 18mm f2 at close distances.

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Finally here’s one more shot from the museum. I’ve cropped it to 16:9 to further emphasis the cinematic look the lens gives to images. Wide angles like the 14mm are great for showing differences in scale, especially when you’ve got people in the shot.

Summary

I can really recommend this lens without caveats. Optically it’s stunning, it’s a good size, weight and balances well. The only real niggle is the loose aperture ring, and that’s something that’s easy to live with when the lens delivers such good results. Whether it’s right for you or not will depend on your shooting style and whether you prefer the versatility of a zoom or like a bag full of fantastic primes. I think I’m fairly heavily in the bag full of primes camp!

There are now quite a few wide angle options for the X mount: the 12mm f2.8 Zeiss Touit, the 12mm f2 Samyang, the 10-24mm f4 Fuji zoom and the 18mm Fuji at the narrower end, which is also covered by several of their general purpose zooms. There’s also a 16mm f1.4 Fuji due out later this year that will no doubt be an interesting optic. If you want a more extreme wide angle, the Zeiss and Samyang offerings are no doubt very good, although the Zeiss is pricey and the Samyang only manual focus. If you prefer zooms then the 10-24mm is also very good, but it can’t quite touch the overall optical quality of the 14mm based on the reviews I’ve seen, especially in the corners. It’s also getting a bit on the big and heavy side for my liking. If you’d like further reading, you can see a nice comparison between the Fuji wide primes and the 10-24mm on Fuji vs. Fuji.

~

If you’ve enjoyed this review, please consider supporting me and the site by purchasing a print from my store here or on Etsy.